Mayor must keep PAL programs going

After-school activities: At-risk children must be offered safe place for learning and recreation.

February 10, 2000

IN ITS desperate attempt to fill 400 police department vacancies, the administration of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley thinks it has hit the Mother Lode: The five-year-old Police Athletic League program deploys 87officers who could be walking beats instead.

Nine of the 27 PAL centers are now slated to be shut down. Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel says these closings will free 20 officers to serve on patrol duty.

A further emasculation of the PAL program seems inevitable. The O'Malley transition team recommends that 12 additional PAL officers be reassigned to the state's attorney's office as investigators.

Since 1995, when then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier reactivated PAL centers, the program has grown by leaps and bounds. About 10,000 children between the ages of seven and 17 are registered in its classes in academic enrichment, character building, arts and culture and physical education.

In a city where the school system gives students scant exposure to arts and music, the PAL centers have filled a huge void. Not surprisingly, many PAL kids have shown measurable improvement in their math and reading skills.

The O'Malley administration's eagerness to redeploy the PAL program's police staff is understandable. It would probably make more sense to staff PAL with civilians or police cadets. However, when PAL was reactivated five years ago, officers were employed for a good reason: Many of the civilian rec programs had been scuttled and the cadet corps scrapped.

The O'Malley administration is now set to rebuild the recreation and parks department. There is talk of coordinating its programs and staffing with PAL and keeping recreation centers open Monday through Saturday.

All this is good. But when this streamlining is done, PAL children should not be left in a lurch.

This reallocation should not be done at the cost of Baltimore's underprivileged children. They need activities that captivate their imagination and constructively channel their energy. PAL has successfully done all that. Messing with PAL would do a grave disservice to Baltimore's good kids.

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